Eagles' Villanueva 'feels like a football player again'

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Eagles' Villanueva 'feels like a football player again'

It’s been a while since Alejandro Villanueva could call himself a football player.

For Villanueva, a former U.S. Army captain who spent the past four years in the military (see story), the Eagles’ OTAs over the past three weeks have been the first time he's participated in football activities since a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals following his senior season at Army in 2009.

“I feel like a football player again,” Villanueva said following the Eagles' OTA on Tuesday. “I feel like I’m doing all the requirements that all the other players are doing, so I feel like I’m part of the team.”

However, his time with the Eagles so far hasn’t had much in common with his football experience at Army.

At 6-foot-9 and 277 pounds, Villanueva’s size and speed were so uncommon for Army that his coaches were never quite sure how to best maximize his abilities. He played three positions in four years, starting off as a defensive lineman, developing into a starting left offensive tackle as a junior before converting to wide receiver as a senior and leading the team with 34 receptions, 522 yards and five touchdowns.

The Eagles have determined that his size will be best spent as a defensive end, a decision that is perfectly fine with Villanueva. After the constant shuffling in college, he is looking forward to finally being able to develop at one position.

“[Playing defense] is a lot different but the coaching has been great, so I’ve been able to learn from all of them,” Villanueva said. “If they think I have a better chance of playing defensive [line], I’ll play there.”

Having not played defense since the beginning of his sophomore year of college, Villanueva has relied heavily on his new teammates to learn defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ scheme, particularly two-time Pro Bowler Trent Cole and second-year defensive end Brandon Bair.

Although his height would seem to give him potential as a pass rusher, Villanueva has concentrated mostly on learning the run-stuffing techniques that come with playing defensive end in the 3-4.

“[Defensive line] coach [Jerry] Azzinaro has been adamant about the key points I can focus on,” Villanueva said. “In our scheme, striking and using my legs are those things. As we progress, hopefully I can put those things into play and improve from where I started.”

In reality, Villanueva’s focus is not on what position he plays as much as it is simply making the team.

A team captain his senior year at West Point, Villanueva's biggest adjustment has been adapting his mindset to fighting for a roster spot after being a key player in college.

Earning a spot on special teams will likely be his best chance to make the final roster; he spent much of Tuesday’s session practicing with the kick return unit.

“Playing football at Army is pretty special and obviously I have a lot more experience there,” Villanueva said. “[Playing for the Eagles] is a different situation. At Army I played four years and was always able to contribute and now I’m just trying to make the team.

“Making the team [is my goal], so if they put me on all the special teams that would be the best news.”

In his few weeks as an Eagle, Villanueva has already received numerous questions from his teammates about his time in the Army. He served three tours in Afghanistan during his four years of service.

Although he is eager to move on with this new chapter in his life as a professional athlete, Villanueva has no problem with teammates asking him about his past. If anything, the camaraderie in the locker room has been his favorite part of playing football again.

“Sometimes they ask about it (being in the army) when they have a question that’s been burning them,” Villanueva said. “Usually they have a question about how things are run. It’s a learning experience for a lot of them. My teammates have been awesome, so it’s been pretty fun overall.”

Grading the Eagles' 2017 NFL draft haul

Grading the Eagles' 2017 NFL draft haul

The 2017 NFL draft is over, so naturarally it's time for the national experts to grade teams' draft classes before any of the draftees ever hit the field. Here's what the experts are saying about the Eagles' draft:

Mel Kiper, ESPN, B+
Kiper says the Eagles "needed to shore up its defense and it did that pretty well" with the picks of first-round DE Derek Barnett and second-round CB Sidney Jones.

Pete Prisco, CBS: B+
Prisco loves the Barnett pick in the first round, calling Barnett possibly "the best pass rusher in this class," but believes the Eagles took a risk with Jones in the second.

Nate Davis, USA Today, C+
Davis likes third-round pick Rasul Douglas' big-play ability, but questions whether fourth-round running back Donnel Pumphrey can withstand the rigors of a full NFL season.

Chris Burke, Sports Illustrated, B+
Burke likes that the Eagles addressed their needs at defensive end and cornerback and says that Pumphrey "could be Darren Sproles 2.0."

Chad Reuter, NFL, A-
Reuter's only gripe with the Eagles' haul is the health of Jones, who might miss his rookie season while recovering from an Achillies' injury, "but will be a good corner down the road."

Dieter Kurtenbach, Fox Sports, B+
Kurtenbach says Barnett is a "solid, if not spectacular pick" and Douglas is a "boom-or-bust" prospect at CB.

Mark Maske, Washington Post, B-
Maske questions Barnett's athleticism, but says "getting DT Elijah Qualls in the sixth round was an excellent value." 

Hard times fuel no-quit attitude of Eagles 3rd-round pick Rasul Douglas

Hard times fuel no-quit attitude of Eagles 3rd-round pick Rasul Douglas

There were times when Rasul Douglas wanted to pack it in.

While playing football at Nassau Community College, Douglas struggled financially. After sleeping on the floor and not having enough money for food, Douglas thought about quitting football and heading back to East Orange, New Jersey.

“I mean, when you have to walk to McDonald’s in the snow and you order five things and you eat two of them at 12 o’clock and you save the other two dollar-menu things for later on in the day," Douglas said. "I think that was one of my craziest days.”

But Douglas didn't quit.

He performed well enough to get noticed by Division I schools and eventually went to West Virginia, where he led the nation in interceptions last season with eight.

The Eagles took him with their third-round pick, 99th overall, on Friday night.

For a kid who was unsure about where his next meal was going to come from to reach the NFL, Douglas' story is already one of triumph.

“I always think about [the hard times]," Douglas said. "Every time I eat, I always think I’m making up a meal I missed in junior college or something like that. I always make a funny joke, so I always think about it.”

Last year's 99th pick, Browns linebacker Joe Schobert, signed a four-year deal worth just under $3 million, with a signing bonus of just under $634,000. That kind of money will signal a huge life change from where Douglas was not very long ago.

But Douglas was really close to giving it all up.

He thought about leaving Nassau Community College, but his coach got him to stay. And Douglas credits his high school coach Marion Bell for getting him to go to junior college when he wasn't planning on it.

In high school, Douglas said he wasn't the best player on his high school team, but he's made it much further than many of his teammates.

"A lot of the guys went back to the streets," said Douglas, who grew up in East Orange with five siblings.

Douglas was on the Eagles' radar before the Senior Bowl in January, but it was that week in Mobile, Alabama, when he really caught their eyes.

The one thing Eagles VP of player personnel Joe Douglas said stood out about Rasul Douglas was the young player's toughness, which likely grew out of difficult circumstances.

"Yeah, definitely, you see that as a player, and his resiliency — it's a great story — and you see that toughness shine through, just the way that he plays," Douglas said. " He's a tough-minded kid now."

The 21-year-old Douglas will come in with a real opportunity to play as a rookie with the Eagles, who don't have a ton of depth at cornerback.

Douglas made it to the NFL, but he's going to make sure he never forgets the tough times he went through.

“Definitely fuels me all the time," Douglas said. "Just thinking about what I went through – practicing on an empty stomach, going to school on an empty stomach and you can’t even focus. So that definitely just makes me want to play all out and hard all the time."